Thames Path Stage 14: Tilehurst to Cholsey

Published 8 April 2015

Geese and a barge, on the River Thames near Mapledurham

It would be unfair and pretty impolite to judge the entire of Tilehurst on the basis of the short stroll from the railway station back to the Thames Path. It was, after all, a walk up just one road and I didn’t particularly have time to spend exploring Tilehurt’s inner nooks and crannies; assuming it had any that is.

The road was lined with the kind of large houses that, in their day, must have once been reasonably grand. Many of them had clearly seen better days. Their glory had faded, and as a result they’d been split up and converted into flats, with their once former front lawns now home to car parks and wheelie bins. Not everywhere looked so downbeat. Someone had clearly spent some money making the Roebuck Hotel look nice, but even the new and swanky sign outside couldn’t disguise the fact that the pub had pulled its last pint prior to conversion to residential use.

The Thames Path set off from just besides the former pub’s building, and I set off without lingering. Well, there wasn’t much reason to. A quick glance at the map had revealed this wouldn’t be the best start to a day’s walk, and it would be some time before I’d be able to walk alongside the river again.

The former Roebuck Hotel, Tilehurst

Still, there was some woodland to walk through, although describing it as woodland was charitable at best. It was more just a patch of trees growing along a narrow strip of land, but “wood” was the term used on several signs to describe the area. And boy, where there a lot of signs, all rather aggressively reminding everyone that they absolutely most positively had to stick to the waymarked path, and under no circumstances could anyone ever stray off it. There was no chance of you not noticing where the path was either. It was too well made for that, but even if by some miracle you were unable to spot it, signposts had been installed, erected mere metres apart

It was, without doubt, the clearest signposted section of the Thames Path – perhaps of any trail – that I’d come across, and as I walked along I had a sudden image of a council office somewhere and member of staff sighing as they wearily put the phone down.

“The owner of that patch of trees on the Thames Path at Tilehurst has been on – again – moaning that people have been going off the path again. Frank, can you pop down with about twenty posts and make sure there’s that they’re all placed about three metres apart. Yeah I know the whole path can be walked in about three minutes, but doing so might shut ‘im up for a few days. After all, no walker will ever be able to say they missed the signs. Well, for our sakes, we can hope.”

The tiny “wood” featured almost double the number of signs than were in the far longer – and more confusing – section through a housing estate that following next; the Thames Path deciding to take in a good dose of Reading’s suburbs. It was another of the trail’s long-term “temporary sections”, existing until such a time – if ever – that the route could be diverted closer to the river instead.

Mapledurham Lock on the Thames Path

So it was with relief that I finally arrived back at the Thames at Mapledurham Lock, with the path heading along the edge of some wide fields. Fields where the landowner didn’t feel the need to remind you of where you could and could not walk, every five minutes.

A dose of January sun had brought out the dog walking crowd and I spent a couple of miles passing owners as their dogs circled round my legs, and wagged their tales enthusiastically.

As I said “hello” for the fifteenth time, I mused on what a weird custom we walkers have. Out in my part of London, it takes months before you may even see your neighbour in the flesh yet alone get to a stage of saying “hello there” to them. Even then, you feel slightly awkward doing so. And then there’s the daily commute. I spent two years travelling into work from the same tube station. Most of the time I’d see the same woman standing on the platform near to the spot where I stood. The train would arrive, and we’d board in silence as we travelled a fair way up the line to Central London. Then we’d both alight at the same station, go up the escalators and head to a different platform to wait for a train there. We’d board – almost always in the same carriage – both get off again after one stop, and then head off to our respective offices.

The River Thames near Mapledurham

Did either of us ever once acknowledge that the other existed, despite sharing pretty much the same commute several times a year? Of course not! Yet here I was saying “hello there” and “morning!” to every Tom, Dick and Sally who passed me in the opposite direction. All people I’d never seen before, and probably never would again. Like I say, it’s a strange thing.

It’s also a custom that seems to be peculiarly British. I’ve been hiking in Canada, Norway, France, Switzerland and Iceland, and pretty much the only people to ever stop and say hello to a fellow walker are Brits who do it out of habit, and then instantly freeze as they contemplate that they’ve probably just made some major faux pas.

And just as I was musing on all this, a man walked past with his dog in tow, who remained completely mute as he walked path.

“How rude!” I muttered to myself, shaking my head as I continued on my way.


Whitchurch Bridge, crossing over the River Thames

Most of the bridges built over rivers in the 18th century were built by private enterprise, with tolls being charged in order to pay for maintenance and – of course – provide a modest profit for the owners. As time went on, local councils purchased many of the bridges, with the tolls being scrapped, but a handful continued to be privately owned, and operated, still funded by tolls. Two such bridges remain on the Thames, one at Swinford and the other where I was now, at Whitchurch.

Whitchurch’s first bridge was built in 1792, allowing people to cross the river without having to use a ferry. That original wooden bridge was replaced in the 19th century, and that was then replaced by an iron structure in 1902, which has remained in-situ ever since. It was a magnificent structure; simple but elegant, painted in white and positively gleaming following nearly a years worth of refurbishment having been recently re-opened following nearly a year of reconstruction work. And even better, as a pedestrian, I could cross without charge.

Over on the other side the Thames Path decided once more, to head away from the river. For most of its route – in the country sections anyway – the Thames Path does its best to follow the towing paths that were built alongside the river. With wind power not being the most reliable of things, boats are frequently pulled along the Thames by horses or other beasts of burden, which walked along the paths on the side of the river. As much as possible tow paths remained on one side of the river for as long as possible, but uncooperative landowners, lack of land or other reasons would see the tow path switch sides, with the animals being carried over the water by ferry.

As commercial traffic moved to the rails and roads, and boats became mechanised, the ferries began to die away, leaving just a handful to ply their trade. The result was that the tow path would switch banks, but there’d be no modern way for the Thames Path to do likewise. In some spots bridges had been erected, but at others a detour was called for.

Often the detours would be rather lacklustre and unappealing; a journey down a busy road, or – as earlier in the day – down a housing estate. The one at Whitchurch however, was something special. It was going to take me along the side of the hill. Well, not the world’s biggest hill. Far from it, in fact. But by its nature, the Thames Path is a rather flat walk so anyone walking along it has to take what thrills they can get.

The village of Whitchurch

The path began to climb gently upwards, following the main road through Whitchurch. Much of the village seemed to be enclosed behind large brick walls, each with a wide entrance in the wall and a sign informing you the names of the several properties could be found by heading on down the drive. It was a curious arrangement, as if the village was hiding away from the comings and goings of the main road – and each other – yet still maintaining an air of openness to the world.

I walked to the top end of the village where the Thames Path left the road and head down a track, past a trickle of houses and fields. The track ended, morphing into a path going through a proper wood – none of that fake stuff of Tilehurst, thank you very much – and it began to run parallel, yet above, the river; the Thames glistening in the sun, and visible below through the trees.

It was nice to see the Thames rather differently, allowing me to look down on it rather than looking across. I can’t say it gave any particular revelation, or made me see things particularly differently. It didn’t. It was just nice. A bit of a change. Something different. And when you spend most of a walk going along on the flat next to some water, a change is sometimes in order.


Hartslock Wood

What followed when the trail returned to the tow path was still different, but certainly not as nice. Indeed, it wasn’t nice at all. And it may not surprise you to learn that the cause of the problem was our old friend mud.

The sides of the hill had gently delivered me down to the same level as the river, although not next to it. The water was flowing a short distance away, and the Thames Path needed to get back there to continue its journey along the tow path once more. It chose to do so by going along a narrow path, fenced in on both sides. And it was just a bit muddy. In fact there was more mud than anything else, all wet and slippery, and definitely the kind that looked like if you put your foot in the wrong place, you’d soon find your walking boot sucked off your feet, probably never to be seen again.

I stood for a moment and assessed the situation, noting that on each side of the path there was a thin strip of land between the path and the fence which looked like it might vaguely be possible to walk along; just wide enough to be able to walk on without slipping, or indeed, loosing vital footwear. All I had to do was pick a side to walk along. I stared for a moment, and made my call. The strip on the right was the one for me.

“Bleearrgh!” I cried as my feet started sliding off in two different, contradictory directions.

I’d chosen unwisely. That narrow strip of grass I’d invested so much faith in, was actually on a slight slope, and as soon as I put my left foot down, I could feel it heading off in the wrong direction. Then my right foot began to go the other way.

My brain quickly worked out that if I didn’t do something I was going to land on the ground within seconds, and instinct kicked in. Only grabbing hold of something would allow me to gain some stability, and hopefully prevent me from being coated head to toe in brown muck. My arm reached out, desperately seeking the fence to the right of me in order to provide the much-needed stability.

“YEEEEEEEAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGHHH!” I screamed, and swiftly followed that statement with several other, far less polite words. There were now several stabbing pains in my hand, which seemed to be getting worse the tighter I gripped the fence.

On the plus side, I was no longer slipping, but the pain was far less appealing. Slowly my brain began to digest the facts, with my head turned to look at the fence to help work out the cause. And there it was. The fence wire that I was holding, the one that was stopping me from getting absolutely filthy, was not just normal wire, but barbed wire. That lovely kind with lots of metal prongs and spikes on it.

The wire that had saved me was now burrowing holes into my hand.

Wrestling my hand away from the fence, I surveyed the damage. There were now two puncture marks on one finger, each with blood slowly oozing out. I rifled through my pockets for a clean tissue and then held it tightly to try and stop the flow of blood.

As the fog of pain slowly receded, I realised things could have been far worse. I could have had the pain and landed in mud as well for starters. But it didn’t stop me muttering unkind things under my breath about whoever owned the fence.

Why did it even need barbed wire on it? It was just a fence around a field. Barely much higher than my waist, it wasn’t as if the fence would ever stop anyone from getting access to the field if they wanted to. Did it even have a practical use, or was this just another case of petty landowners having their revenge on those who passed by quite legally? I was forming a view on the matter, although whether I had a certain bias based on recent events, who could say?


Goring and Streatley Bridge

It was nearly lunchtime, and I quite fancied popping to a local hostelry for some food, and maybe a pint or two. Reason enough for not wanting to receive a coating of mud if there ever was one. For some reason, pub owners tend to prefer their clientele to be reasonably clean and tidy, rather than depositing half a field of wet soil on the pub floor. Madness, I know, but that’s how it is.

My quest for a public house was aided by the fact that I was approaching Goring and Streatley which are a pair of villages on opposite sides of the Thames, which lead a symbiotic relationship together; separate but intrinsically joined at the hip by a well placed bridge. Of the two, Goring has the upper hand. It’s in Goring that you’ll find the railway station, the post office, shops and most of the pubs, as well as three quarters of the local population. Which was why I headed to Streatley’s sole public house, The Bull, instead.

It looked like an old coaching inn from the outside, and had enough history to get a fleeting mention in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat. Its looks though, were deceptive. Inside, the pub was far from a quaint, untouched rural inn. The place had been extensively modernised over the years and whilst it wasn’t unpleasant by any means, it was to be lacking the character that I’d initially expected. A town pub in style, rather than a rural retreat,

The Bull Inn, Streatley

My arrival at The Bull must have reduced the average age of the customers, but only slightly. At one end of the building, a senior citizens group sat playing cards, whilst behind me a frail looking lady sat silently ate a piece of salmon. Modern pop and dance music was playing at a discrete volume in the background, but it seemed a musical choice that would be particularly appreciated by the clientele.

It was a sharp contrast to the last Thames Path pub I’d visited, which was old fashioned, but full of people in suits. However there was a connection between the two establishments. At the Bull at Sonning I had sat behind an office worker who sounded exactly like comedian David Mitchell. And now at the Bull in Streatley, a barmaid who sounded just like sharp-witted TV presenter and poker player – and David’s wife – Victoria Coren-Mitchell, was serving me pints. Who if, of course, married to the aforementioned David.

I lingered in the Bull for far too long. Well it was cold outside. But finally I paid up and headed reluctantly to the pub’s door, noting that whilst I’d been inside, the morning’s bright sun and clear blue skies had been replaced by gloomy clouds and the threat of rain. It had been a rapid transaction; one predicted by the weather forecast, but which had seemed so unlikely to actually happen when I’d looked out of the pub window at the sun a mere fifteen minutes later. Now though the cloud cover was total. The blue sky was firmly hidden away.

Well, if needs must, I muttered to myself, zipped up by fleece and set off to re-join the Thames Path.


The Ridgeway, seen from the Thames Path

For a short way – basically the length of Goring and Streatley Bridge – the Thames Path shares its space with another National Trail. Over 87 miles, the Ridgeway follows historic drovers roads over a chalkstone ridge from Overton Hill in Wiltshire, to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire.

At Goring and Streatley however, there is no ridge, and the reason for that is the Thames. Over millennia the river carved its way through the hills, wearing a hole in them that is now known as the Goring Gap. So at Goring the Ridgeway spends a few miles following the Thames instead, although on the opposite side of the water to the Thames Path.

I’d walked the Ridgeway a couple of years earlier, and now tried to recall what this stretch of the river had been like when I was last here. But all I could recall was seeing were a grassy field, a cracking looking pub and a wholesome looking family paddling in a wooden rowing boat. Little I saw now was particularly familiar, although I realised why when I looked at the map. The Ridgeway spent some time darting inland due to a lack of riverside paths. As did the Thames Path. And it just so happened that when the Ridgeway was inland, the Thames Path was besides the river. And vice versa too.

Rugby pitches near Moulsford

One of the Thames Path’s detours came at the village of Moulsford. Yet again, the tow path had switched to the opposite bank, requiring the Thames Path to go down a busy main road instead. Moulsford seemed to consist of a handful of houses and two large independent schools. A girls school sat in the heart of the village, whilst the boys school was on the outskirts. To get back to the river required me to walk past the latter’s sports pitches, which were filled with more rugby goal posts than I have ever seen in my life before. Football, no doubt, was far too uncouth for the pupils. Well, whatever. Not being a fan of either, it all just looked like a waste of grass to me.

I wouldn’t be spending much time back next to the river. My turn off for Cholsey railway station was a mere mile and a half down the track, however it seemed the weather was going to punish me for my desertion. It had started raining as I walked through Moulsford, but now hail began to hit me in earnest. The day’s transformation from idyllic walking weather to the complete opposite was now complete.

With my head down, and hailstones stinging my face, I thought my way along, seeking the track that would lead me to Cholsey village. Given the state of the weather, I wasn’t particularly expecting to see anyone else on the village streets but as I turned away from the Thames, a car pulled up and a man lept out with two enthusiastic dogs who barked and yapped as their owner swiftly shrunk down into his coat.

Signpost near Cholsey

“Heawlearch, hahaha!” came a voice in a thick Westcountry twang, and for a moment I wondered how far down the country I’d managed to walk in a day.

With absolutely no idea what he’d just said, I simply grinned an inane grin and replied merely with a nod and a quiet “aye!”, hoping that it would do the trick, and that nothing further would be expected from me. Nothing further was forthcoming, so either it was satisfactory, or else he’d concluded I was a simpleton. But I was racing up the track to quickly to particularly care which it was.

It turned out that Cholsey was a particularly long place, with its houses mostly clustered along the road that led to the railway station. There didn’t seem to be much to the place. Just a pub, a village shop and lots and lots of houses. Lots of them. They just seemed to go on forever. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever even find the railway station, when I finally came to a mini-roundabout and found the object of my final quest. Glancing at my watch, I noted with a sigh that a train had gone through just minutes earlier, meaning I’d be spending half hour shivering on a cold and draughty platform until the next one arrived.

Cholsey railway station

With a sigh I climbed the steps to the platform, and with delight noticed the electronic sign, which revealed that the train was actually running late and, indeed, would be here within minutes. As I stamped my feet on the platform in a futile attempt to warm up, as well as dislodge a chunk of mud on my boots, it pulled up and I gratefully boarded and entered its warm, welcoming clutches.

It didn’t take long for it to zoom back to Reading, as as it sped through the countryside I looked out of the window and noticed that most of the area was now covered with a thin blanket of snow. Whilst I’d had to endure hail, it seemed that everyone else had been getting a far less painful experience, and the land looked far more attractive for it.

If only it had been more snow for me. I could have coped with that. But on the other hand, I was warm now. And frankly that was far more important.

Rambling Man walks the Thames Path

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